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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 30,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Dinner Party’

Why does Neil Simon’s play, "The Dinner Party,"

seem more likable at Paper Mill than it did on Broadway? The answer

is the cast.

Although the cast for the Broadway production included such

high-profile

entertainers as Henry Winkler and John Ritter, they were not only

poorly cast as Simon’s Parisians, but displayed a reckless disregard

for anything that might be called characterization.

Now, with the help of more carefully selected cast, I am suddenly

looking at Simon’s play with new eyes. It is no masterpiece, but it

can now be seen as an amusingly bittersweet entertainment, filled

with lilting dialogue and a genuine point of view. The reason Simon

chose the French as subjects for his play never becomes clear, unless

he thinks that three divorced American couples are less prone to

revealing

the regrets, pain, and pleasures of their private lives at a dinner

party.

For there is nothing notable or noticeably French in manner or tone

of the six characters who arrive, one by one, at a posh Parisian

restaurant

to which they have been invited. Yet we can accept at face value that

they are neither Chinese nor Eskimos. Indeed, the six actors are so

superior in every way to the original Broadway cast that I would

gladly

accept them as Chinese or Eskimos, if the script demanded it.

Even in the light of Simon’s most recent effort, "45 Seconds From

Broadway," which has just closed after a brief Broadway run,

"The

Dinner Party," despite its relatively successful run last season,

is still not destined to be placed near the top of the playwright’s

canon. Although "The Dinner Party" lasts only about 100

minutes

(without intermission), it contains much that is rueful as well as

funny about why marriages fail.

Within designer John Lee Beatty’s very pretty evocation of a private

dining salon, all six divorcees are on call to expose and exorcise

the personal demons that soured their marriages. First to arrive is

Claude Pichon (Greg Mullavey), an antiquarian with a condescending

air. He is soon followed by Albert Donay (Michael Mastro), a dopey

proprietor of a car-rental agency. That they don’t know each other,

or seem to have any shared social connections, is further confounded

when they realize that their dinner invitations have come from the

divorce lawyer they share in common.

Things get more uncomfortable with the arrival of Andre Bouville

(Steve

Vinovich), an arrogant stiff-necked clothing manufacturer, who also

used the same divorce lawyer. His overt disdain for the other two

men is nothing compared to the reactions to the women who begin to

arrive.

Claude’s ex-wife Mariette Levieux (Elizabeth Heflin) is the first

of the three women, a stylish and attractive writer of pulp fiction,

who apparently had a short post-divorce fling with Andre. She paves

the way for Yvonne Fouchet (Catherine Lloyd Burns), Albert’s

irritatingly

timid and tense ex-wife. Last to arrive is Andre’s ex-wife Gabrielle

Buonocelli (Meg Foster), whom we discover is the evening’s

manipulator,

and whose secret agenda is supposed to be the raison d’etre for this

unsettling little soiree.

Mullavey, a veteran of 70 plays, does well as the insufferably stiff

Claude who earns our empathy and our laughs when his sexual fantasies

are revealed. Mastro, who was praised for his Broadway performances

in "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "Side Man," gets high

marks for the hilariously off-centered countenance he sustains as

the overly attentive husband who ruined his marriage with too much

love. Vinovich, an alumnus of Simon’s "Lost in Yonkers," is

excellent as the mean-spirited Andre. Both Heflin, as the

newly-fulfilled

and successful novelist, and Burns as the ditsy Yvonne, are delightful

portrayals. Although more familiar for her film and television roles,

Foster is not only convincing as a glamorous seductress, but gives

a centering force to the production.

The play unfolds as each couple gets a chance to face each other with

the facts and feelings that presumably led to their breakup. I won’t

spoil it by noting the various revelations and regrets, except to

say that while none of it sociologically or psychologically profound,

it will give you pause to reflect on your own marriage — or

divorce.

What is remarkable is that all that was previously stilted and posy

in performance on Broadway has become brisk and bright under the

direction

of John Rando, who also directed the Broadway production. It all goes

to show what a difference a cast can make.

— Simon Saltzman

The Dinner Party, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive,

Millburn,

973-376-4343. $29 to $59. Performances continue to February 10.


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